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Fighting the Dreaded Freshman 15


College freshmen are swarming campuses across Washington this month, finally on their own, accumulating life-changing knowledge, skills and fat.

Yes, fat -- an accumulation dubbed the Freshman Fifteen, as in 15 extra pounds.

According to experts, too many students simply aren't paying attention to one of the surest accruals next to debt that they will experience their freshman year. And, much like debt, the extra pounds they put on will likely stick with them for quite some time.

Unless, that is, they listen to Caitlin Murphy.

Murphy, 22, a senior in philosophy at the University of Washington, has been through the lunch line on this issue and is eager to spread the word: New college students, you don't have to gain those pounds.

Over the summer, Murphy self-published her tips-laden diet-fitness book, "Fighting the Freshman Fifteen: How to lose weight in college -- or better yet, never put it on."

Murphy, a UW aerobics instructor, fairly bursts with enthusiasm when discussing her crusade.

"I love getting other people excited about fitness," she said. "I wanted to take all of the stuff that I've learned at UW and help them navigate college without gaining the dreaded freshman fifteen."

Her 138-page book reads like a fast-paced conversation with a friend.

"I had girls my age in mind reading it," she said. "If you sat down with your friend and talked about getting in shape, this is what it would sound like."

The book includes workout plans and diet tips, laced with personal discussions of her bout with anorexia, weight gain after a round of mono and poor fitness. She also discusses general personal health issues, such as the tendency for girls to "size up the competition" or measure themselves against the "skinny girl" across the hall.

"It's not restrictive," she said. "It's not about being skinny, but about being healthy. ... It's important for women to feel good about their bodies, and you feel good about your body by doing something good for it -- eating right and treating it right."

Murphy said she has an earnest desire to help freshmen -- men and women -- navigate some of the pitfalls of their new college lives, as well as selling the thousand copies of the book she's had published.

The culprit behind much of the freshman weight gain, she said, appears to be sweet freedom -- which includes booze, pizza and other fatty snacks in addition to sugar.

Experts agree.

Many freshmen go through their first experience without direct parental involvement making a steady stream of poor dietary decisions, while stuck to their seats, staying up late, stressing out and working only their brains.

"It definitely is a problem and I encounter it a lot," said Dr. Mary Watts, director of UW's Hall Health Primary Care Center.

Watts said students are aware of healthy foods and basic nutritional needs. They've just not been responsible for such a diet before.

"Because they have never had to actually select the items that constitute a balanced dinner -- it always just appeared at dinner, they've never had to think about limiting their fat and salt," she said.

Most fail to realize that they were fit and trim in high school while eating all they wanted because they were in track and swimming, football or volleyball, and other physical activities. Something most of them will not do in college on a regular basis.

Watts said students need to keep in mind that the average woman needs only 1,500 calories a day to maintain her weight, while men need only 2,200 to 2,500. And, she emphasized, alcohol is a major player in a poor diet, leading to weight gain.

Many students, she said, don't recognize the enormous number of calories in alcohol. Turns out that newfound right to party is a recipe for expanding the waistline.

Approximately 15 pounds of new mass will accumulate on many freshmen before they move out of the danger zone and into a more stable, better-adjusted adult lifestyle, according to Cornell University researcher David Levitsky.

A study that Levitsky published last summer showed that freshmen gain an average of 4.2 pounds during their first 12 weeks on campus.

Super-sizing the problem, more and more incoming freshmen enter their first year weighing more to begin with.

Last week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that roughly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. There are real dangers to all those extra pounds -- excess weight is approaching tobacco's top ranking in causing preventable deaths in this country.

"There is hope for the Freshman Fifteen," Watts said. "You have to work at getting it off, but if you work gradually and slowly, it will happen."

Murphy started collecting thoughts for her book last summer while working as a hostess in a downtown restaurant. She jotted down notes and put other ideas on tape, recording her ideas even while on the road.

Her parents, who live in Bellingham, are fitness nuts themselves and helped her produce the book.

Early on, Murphy knew she wanted the book to read fast and be easy to use like a magazine. She wasn't sure there was a direct connect between studying philosophy and writing a fitness book, but her college classes have made her a confident writer.

"It was natural to take something I was passionate about, fitness, and tying it with something I was also passionate about, writing," she said.

Right now, she said her career goals follow the fitness path. She'd like to produce videos, write for magazines and publish more books.

"If all else fails, I would potentially like to go to law school."

Murphy wants to stick with training for now, though. She said she enjoys making aerobics and kickboxing fun and exciting for others. She's been teaching four to six classes a quarter at UW since January.

The book idea, she said, grew out of that enthusiasm -- and from her own experience of being out of shape and then feeling good about her body once she was fit. She focused on the freshman year, because she wanted to draw from her own experiences.

"People want to know," Watts said of the Freshman Fifteen phenomenon. "This woman's booklet is a very good first step."

To see more of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for online features, or to subscribe, go to

© 1998-2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. All Rights Reserved.

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